Evolution has not been kind to millions of back pain sufferers. The physical stress of modern life as a biped is often more than the spine is engineered to handle, leading to painful spasms that range from irritating to debilitating. The odds an adult has had lower back pain in the past 3 months are 1 in 3.91.
What’s behind all the pain and doctor visits? Some of the major risk factors for back pain in adults include obesity (the odds an adult is obese are 1 in 3.91), smoking (1 in 5.08), workplace stress (1 in 3.33), and lifestyle factors (the odds a woman owns a pair of high heels are 1 in 1.64—61%).
Back pain is one of the leading reasons for doctor visits, but MDs have no easy answers. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories are often the first place to start, and alternative treatments like massage, acupuncture, and relaxation techniques bring at least temporary relief to many. Counter to first instincts, when pain is bringing you to your knees, doctors recommend regular gentle movement, rather than long periods of sitting or lying down, to loosen muscle spasms. And most back pain subsides on its own with time.
Desperate patients may demand extensive tests, but human anatomy is not that cooperative in pinpointing the source of pain. The complex structures of the spinal area are prone to stresses, sprains, and nerve-impinging imperfections both minor and severe. Studies have shown that many “abnormalities” that show up on x-rays and MRIs are present in a significant portion of asymptomatic spines, making it difficult to identify exactly where a structural problem lies.
While many doctors have begun to reduce the number of surgically indicated cases, one recent study found the number of surgeries performed for lower back pain in Medicare patients to be directly proportional to the availability of scanners themselves. More scanning and more surgery do not guarantee less back pain, though, leaving many to wait it out until the pain goes away on its own, or until evolution provides a better solution.